HOMENAJE: An interview with the man behind it, Ricardo Muñiz

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When Ricardo Muñiz contacted us about including his series of photos, Homenaje: A Traveling Homage to Our Puerto Rican Heroes, I was pleasantly in awe of how well he got both what Centro Voices is about and of how well his exquisite collection of photos fit with our commitment to sharing the story of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. In the past year, we’ve had the opportunity to share 12 images accompanied by an intimate profile of our living Puerto Rican heroes. While we’ve hosted Muñiz’s exhibit online, it has been making the rounds throughout New York City, gracing the walls of a myriad of spaces frequented by our community, from museums to restaurants. Homenaje finishes its year and run at El Museo del Barrio. It will be on view through January 9, 2016. Make sure to check it out. We cap our own year of Homenajes with an interview to the man behind it itself. If I could capture a soul with a camera as well as Ricardo does, I would make Ricardo an Homenaje. The work he has done and does for the Puerto Rican community earns him a spot in his own gallery. In lieu of that, we had a chance to ask a few questions about him, his process, and what’s next for Homenaje and for Ricardo.

Suset: Aside from being a talented artist and photographer, you are a committed educator. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your roots, your evolution…

Ricardo: I became a teacher because, simply put, I was surprised I was still alive at age 21. So, I made a promesa that I would work in the area I hated the most with the people nobody wanted. Yes, I went to work with raggedy-ass, bad-mouthed kids in rundown schools. I promised three years of my life. Three became five became seven became eight became nine became 13. At 15, I was like, "Oh, hell, no. Basta ya."

Suset: What was that trajectory like?

Ricardo: I started my adult professional career as a teacher of all subjects for an alternative high school system in New York City called Offsite Educational Services that catered mainly to high school dropouts of color from very poor neighborhoods. OES, at its height in the 90s, had over 140 one-room or mini schoolhouses throughout NYC that provided GED training and some credit-bearing classes. All of my mini-schools, though, focused on regular diploma graduation. Unlike those part-time programs, my schools ran late into the evenings and offered jobs, internships and volunteer work. I was also able to bring in many good people who donated their time and services to help teach subjects ranging from sex education to how to deal with the cops to how to advocate for tenants rights to puppetry.

The first school I worked at was The East Harlem Music School, founded by the famed Puerto Rican salsero musician Johnny Colón. Stephanie Muñoz was in charge of bringing in alternative sources of money to keep EHMS alive, and the opportunity bring the NYCDOE in to provide free teachers was too tempting for her to let slip by. Though she passed on many years ago, Stephanie is still the most brilliant mind I have come across in education. From there, I went on to create several of my own educational programs including The East River School in the East River Houses (NYCHA), The PM Program at IS 218/SUMA: Children's Aid Society in partnership with Enzo Togneri and Jessica Davis, and the Alternative to Suspension Program for District 8 in the Bronx under the tutelage of Dr. Betty A. Rosa. I ended my public school career in 2004 as a bilingual social worker at IS 174 in the Castle Hill/Soundview section of the Bronx.

Suset: With such a pedigree and accomplishments under your belt as an educator, what drove you back to the creative realm? Do you see the two—being an educator and an artist—as separate?

Ricardo: After a short stint in two doctoral programs (they both kicked me out for not paying the bills), I decided to return to my original love, and I've been a full-time artist since. However, because of my background as an educator and a social worker, all of my art and photography is focused on finding the beauty of the hidden and marginalized voices in oppressed communities of color--especially my own Latino community—here in the United States.

Because I'm still a teacher and social worker at heart, I donate most of the proceeds I earn to two main charities: The American Indian College Fund and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. I do this in celebration of my own heritage and because I firmly believe education is key to the success of young Latinos in America. Although I still "teach" and "mentor" many young models of color, I consider it my duty to try to help my people in any way I can—even if it's only by telling our stories through my art.

Suset: For those who are not yet familiar with your photo series, what is Homenaje about? Where did the inspiration for Homenaje come from?

Ricardo: There are roughly 8.5 million people who can claim Puerto Rican heritage and ancestry in the world. Nearly three out of every five live on the US mainland. For the young people of Puerto Rican heritage and ancestry who grow up in NYC and the United States, who and where are the cultural heroes and icons they can admire? As an artist and educator, I grappled with this question.

I had a simple idea. Yes, we can all celebrate our pop icons of Puerto Rican heritage like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, but let us pay tribute to those Puerto Ricans, those Nuyoricans who “han corta’o la caña pa’ abrir el camino.” Let us pay homage to those who have paved the way for years and are still in the forefront of the fight for recognition, parity, and equity for all Puerto Ricans. Let us pay homage to those who have laid this foundation in the de facto Puerto Rican capital of the world: New York City with more Puerto Rican people living here than in San Juan, the capital of the island.

This is the driving force behind the photo series HOMENAJE: A Traveling Tribute to Our Puerto Rican and Nuyorican Heroes: it is a celebration of our trailblazers and poetic bricklayers and foundation-builders for the New York Puerto Rican community.

Suset: When did Homenaje start? Tell us a little bit about what one can expect to encounter when we see it. Ultimately, what do you hope people will get from the exhibit?

Ricardo: Started in October of 2014 and traveling every one to six weeks to a new location in the city, HOMENAJE brings our heroes back home to the very streets and buildings, community centers and projects, liquor stores and bodegas, health centers and local schools, and neighborhoods where they first got their start, and where today’s Puerto Rican people eat, sleep, socialize and play, so that those Puerto Ricans, Nuyoricans, and Puerto Rican-Americans who are still struggling in the hood can see that we are a people with a cultural history and legacy that should be celebrated and honored.

The exhibit, consisting of 17x11 horizontal posters, is my way of paying tribute to our Puerto Rican people and our voices. It is a way of recognizing our heroes and introducing them to a new generation of Puerto Ricans on the mainland. To that end, each portrait is accompanied by a loosely biographical story that reveals each hero’s unique personality and idiosyncrasies. The posters are strung together in different configurations using clotheslines and clothespins—reminiscent of how clothes were dried in the old days from tenement windows and how clothes are still dried in many places in Puerto Rico.

Some of the cultural icons who are featured in HOMENAJE include writers/poets Nicholasa Mohr, Miguel Algarín, Dr. Nancy Mercado, Victor Hernández Cruz, Dr. Myrna Nieves and Jesús Papoleto Meléndez; opera singer Eva de la O; musicians Johnny Colón, Bobby Sanabria, Eddie Montalvo, Aurora Flores and Orlando Marín; artists Marcos Dimas and Nitza Tufiño; activists Elizabeth Colón, Elizabeth Yeampierre, Sery Colón and Jaime Estades; choreographers Merián Sóto and Arthur Áviles; and boxer Carlos Ortiz.

HOMENAJE is a traveling exhibit, a modern take on the original groundwork laid by the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. It has toured different Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York City, making one-week to six-week stops along the way. It has been showcased in venues including Adel Liquors, BAAD, BMHC, Boriken Neighborhood Health Center, Camaradas, Casa Latina Music Shop, El Maestro, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater/Pregones, Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, Westside High School, and now, its final resting stop at El Museo del Barrio from December 8, 2015 to January 11, 2016.

Suset: How are those profiled selected? You really share personal and touching stories about everyone you feature. How do you create rapport with the people you future? Do you have any particular favorites, favorite anecdotes about this process?

Ricardo: I really wanted HOMENAJE to be a celebration of the living, of those heroes and icons we could still honor now like the saying goes, “¡Que me lo den en vida!” Too often in mainland US culture, many of our elders are “forgotten” and their lives and accomplishments aren’t remembered until they die. There is nothing wrong with doing big funerals and celebrations of someone’s life once s/he has passed on. Nothing. But, so many of our elders are overlooked now because our society is so youth-focused, and the new becomes exciting even if it’s mediocre. I really wanted to find the ditch diggers and build them a throne—albeit a cheap one on a clothesline string—but, I wanted the clothesline to be a line connecting us today to our past. I wanted the clothesline to be a line connecting us from the tenement buildings to the projects in which we grew up, to the dust and campo from which our ancestors came, and to be a line connecting the dream of some unknown youth today to the historical legacy of a true hero and icon of yesterday who is still with us today. I wanted the clothesline to connect us all while putting us all on display so everyone could see us.

The first icons and heroes I reached out to were our elders: some I knew, some I was introduced to by others. Our first exhibit at Camaradas included 17 people. Then, the bochinche began. People started approaching me asking why this person was in the exhibit, and not that one. That that one was an “echona,” and that she never did anything for anybody but herself. It was horrible, yes, but funny. One exhibit, and my Puerto Rican people were already complaining….

Suset: How did you handle that? Selecting and profiling the people you thought deserved to be profiled and keeping your audience happy/engaged?

Ricardo: After that exhibit, I put together an anonymous advisory council of leaders and activists, artists and academics, ranging in age from 35 to 75, ranging in number from 5 to 13, and all subsequent honorees were nominated by or voted into the exhibit by this advisory council. I still collected all the nominations (which came from all types of people). I still conducted all the interviews. And, I still I took all of the photos. But, to reduce the controversy and to make the exhibit “fairer,” the advisory council was the collective that decided who should be honored.

Many people didn’t agree with all of the decisions, but I am proud to say that HOMENAJE was a project truly devoted to honoring all types of Puerto Ricans representing all types of fields.

Suset: You’ve shown at very different spaces, from Casa Adela to Loisaida Inc. and now El Museo del Barrio. How has been the reception of the traveling exhibit?

Ricardo: I remember parrandas in my youth, the traveling and singing and drinking and partying from one house to another during the holiday season. This is what I envisioned with HOMENAJE, that like a parranda, it would grow and grow and grow as it traveled from house to house, venue to venue, neighborhood to neighborhood. I wasn’t sure I could afford to feed people at each stop, to be real, but I was hopeful we could celebrate in some capacity, and we were.

Suset: How has the exhibit grown since you conceived of it? What is next for Homenaje?

Ricardo: From 17 to 22 original heroes at Camaradas to the now over 60 we have, HOMENAJE has grown with each showing. We even were able to modify the exhibit to fit the spaces in which we were installed. At Adel Liquors, we only showcased 13 heroes (the ones who liked to drink asked if they could be exhibited there.) At Casa Latina, we featured musicians and East Harlem residents. At the Nuyorican, we featured writers and performers. At the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, BAAD, BMHC, Westside High School, JHS 117, Boriken Neighborhood Health Center, El Maestro, and the Loisaida Center, we featured the exhibit in its entirety at that moment.

Even though we have over 60 people featured in the exhibit now at El Museo, there are dozens more we can add and who will be added if the show starts a new run in the future. Although HOMENAJE will now close at El Museo on January 11, 2016, Centro Voices has agreed to keep it as a running feature online, so we will be showcasing new heroes and icons each month in every issue. This is a blessing, and I am truly honored to be able to do this.

Suset: Beyond Homenaje, what are you working on right now? Do you have any other projects we should keep an eye out for?

Ricardo: I have just created CHULO, a new a line of clothing and gear that is culturally-relevant to today's marginalized youth of color. Our mission as a company is to inspire young people to invest in a brand that invests in them. Each time a young person buys the brand, s/he is having a direct and immediate impact on his/her own community because proceeds are reinvested back into a local CBO, scholarship program or charity that services those very same youth.

To do this, CHULO partners with local community centers to identify, educate, train and ultimately hire young people to be part of the CHULO design team as artists, designers, writers, promoters, vendors and/or promotional spokespersons.

Although the CHULO brand is only a couple of months old in terms of vending, we have already partnered with the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD), Uprose Brooklyn (Brooklyn’s first Latino social service and social justice community center), the Get Kids Off The Street Program (an after-school and weekend dance program sponsored by Tropical Image), El Museo del Barrio (vending only in the museum's gift shop), and El Maestro, Inc. (a boxing and cultural center in the Bronx).

We’ve been very lucky with the brand so far. We have done numerous fashion shows, public appearances and cultural festivals, and we have been able to donate to our partner agencies as well as several others including the American Indian College Fund and the GED program at Taino Towers.

People can go online to purchase directly online or they can stop by any one of our partner agencies and buy products directly from them.

Suset: Thanks, Ricardo. It’s been a pleasure featuring Homenaje and we are excited to continue sharing your pieces at Centro Voices.

Ricardo: Thanks, Suset, and thanks to El Centro and Centro Voices for all of your support with HOMENAJE this year. I am truly, truly grateful for your support. Apart from all this, I'm still a starving artist.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 18 December 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.